Litter Box Etiquette

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Dr. Pamela Reid, ASPCA

Cats are wonderful pets. Cats are affectionate, intelligent, and playful companions and they provide one huge advantage over dogs: they don’t have to be walked several times a day, in the rain, snow, or freezing cold! Most cats are fastidious in their toileting habits and are content to use their own indoor bathroom: a litter box.

Litter Box Etiquette

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However, at least 10 percent of household cats soil outside of the litter box at some time during their life. Some cats stop using the box altogether, some only use the box for urination, others only for defecation, and some cats will still use the box at times but will also go outside of the box. It is critical to first evaluate and rule out a medical cause for the problem. Have your cat checked thoroughly by your veterinarian. If the problem is not medical, then the most likely reason that your cat is not using the litter box is that she doesn’t like what’s being offered – she may not like the litter, she may not like the box, she may not like the spot, or she may simply like another alternative better.

Some litter box problems stem from the cat developing a preference for a certain substrate or surface for elimination. Maybe the cat wishes to go au natural and uses the soil from your potted plant. Maybe you added a soft throw rug in your bathroom that feels much better to the cat. The best way to deal with a substrate preference is to make the desired substrate unavailable (cover the soil in your plant pots with plastic, remove the throw rug, keep a inch or two of water in your tub, etc.) and give your cat a choice of different litter types. Line up a series of boxes and offer a selection of clay, clumping, coarse, fine, etc. In a standard choice test, most cats preferred clumping over a variety of other litters so make sure you include at least one clumping choice. They also favored fine-grained and soft litter.

A substrate aversion means that the cat particularly dislikes the litter you’ve provided. Cats prone to developing a litter aversion tend to show early warning signs, such as failing to “cover” their urine and feces, failing to scratch at the litter prior to elimination, scratching outside of the box rather than inside, perching with their feet on the edge of the box, racing out of the box, or shaking their feet as though disgusted by the feel of the litter. If y our cat displays any of these behaviors, you should offer a choice of different litters before you have a problem, so your cat can tell you what she prefers.

Cats also have pretty strong likes and dislikes about boxes. The majority of cats prefer a large box that is easy to enter, with a low to moderate level of litter. They usually don’t like a covered box; I mean who would want to be stuck in a tiny room saturated with the smells of urine and feces? Cats really like a clean box. If you have a fussy cat you’d be wise to scoop at least once a day. Avoid washing the box with detergents because the smell may repel the cat. Warm water is just fine. Replace the litter entirely once a week. A cat’s sense of smell is very strong so, no matter how clean you keep the box, avoid placing it near her food, water, favorite sleeping spots, or near room deodorizers. In fact, a good way to discourage a cat from soiling in specific areas is to place food bowls, toys, and beds in the soiled areas.

Where the litter box is located can have a major impact on a cat’s desire to use it. Cats prefer a box that is located in a quiet but not “cornered” location. Cats like to be able to see if someone is approaching and they like to have more than one route for running out of the box to escape, so closets and unused shower stalls are typically not good choices. If your cat is elderly, she may become reluctant to climb up and down a flight of stairs to use a litter box so keep a box, with low sides, on every floor. If you suspect your cat is soiling because she prefers a different spot, try placing a box there. If she uses it, keep it there if you can; if you can’t, leave it for a few weeks and then gradually, inches at a time, move it to a more acceptable place nearby.

Cats can also learn to fear the area where the box is located. If the cat has been constipated, she may come to associate the pain of defecation with the environment around the box. Similarly, a cat suffering from diarrhea may get feces on her feet or tail and associate that unpleasantness with the place. Scolding your cat near the box can cause the cat to avoid the area. I’ve even heard of one cat that stopped using her box, which was placed next to the toilet, because the teenage boy in the family was “splashing” in the litter box! Be considerate if you have a timid cat – she’s not going to want to eliminate in a box situated in a busy room or hallway, next to the washer/dryer, or in a noisy basement workshop.

Sometimes an elimination problem can develop as a result of conflict between cats in the home. Fussy cats may refuse to use a box that another cat has used. You should always have more litter boxes than cats to increase the likelihood there is a clean box somewhere. A good guide is that the number of boxes should equal the number of cats in the home plus one (i.e. 2 cats = 3 boxes). If one cat is harassing and intimidating another, the victim may be too afraid to go near the box. Sometimes an aggressive cat will lie in wait and attack the victim while she’s in the box. Lying in wait can even happen when one cat, often the younger, is trying to entice the other cat to play, but the victim may perceive the ambush as a terrifying experience and subsequently avoid the box. If you have multiple cats and you aren’t sure which cat is soiling, speak with your veterinarian about administering fluorescein, a harmless dye, to one of the cats. The dye does not stain carpeting but causes the urine to fluoresce blue for 24 hours under an ultraviolet light. Alternatively, cats can be confined, one at a time, to determine which one is soiling.

Regardless of why your cat is not using the box, make sure you clean soiled areas thoroughly with an enzymatic cleanser designed to neutralize the odor. DO NOT clean with an ammonia-based cleanser. Urine contains ammonia and cleaning with ammonia could attract the cat back to the same spot to urinate again.

© 2003 ASPCA

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ASPCA
424 East 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128-6804
(212) 876-7700
www.aspca.org

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